Eric Church has been kicked off of a major tour, and more recently made comments to Rolling Stone concerning fellow country artist Blake Shelton's participation in a reality-television show created to showcase young musical talent. Not to mention some considered his song "Lotta Boot Left to Fill," which appeared on 2009 sophomore album Carolina, an attack on another star, Jason Aldean.
Church is one of the most outspoken and most popular artists on the scene today. When the 2012 CMA nominations were announced earlier this month, his five were more than any other artist got: Male Vocalist of the Year, Album of the Year (last year's Chief), and the hat trick of Single of the Year, Song of the Year and Music Video of the Year for his moody hit "Springsteen."
Last year Church was CMA-nominated for New Artist of the Year, a little strange considering his major-label debut, Sinners Like Me, was released in July 2006. Asked about that particular nomination, Church laughs and shares a story he had heard about superstar Kenny Chesney, who had the same issue for several years.
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When asked why he thinks it took so long for him to get recognition, he says it's something he really wasn't sure about.
"I don't understand the politics of that stuff and I'm not sure what makes somebody new," Church laughs. "I think a lot of it is just, especially in country music, there's this big bottleneck in front of it. Getting that new artist or getting into any of those categories, you can't really come in and get another category unless you've been nominated for the new artist. That's the only thing that I could come up with logically.
"I think for us it was a little bit slower, and it took a little bit longer for people to see if we were going away or not," Church adds. "I think when we hung around that long, they thought they should nominate us for something."
Church came up in the music business the hard way, playing bars, clubs and honky-tonks, all the while homing in on what his fans really liked. But Church's instinct for what his fans expect sometimes leads him towards country's dangerous curves; his music pushes the envelope every once in a while and makes music execs cringe.
When he went in to record "Smoke a Little Smoke" for Carolina, many thought he was going to end his career because the song's content wasn't something they thought radio would play. But though it got a little less spin, the fans at his concert would go wild when he performed it.
With each album release, Church has depended on his instincts just a little more. When he went in to record Chief, Church would sometimes do the songs in one take. To him, the first take is always the best.
"This is truth," he says. "With Chief, we gave creativity a chance. I've always found that no matter what the situation is the first take, it's going to be your most magical take. People are playing using their heart and their ear and not their memory. For the first time they are following their instincts more.
"I wanted Chief to be a little more alive and a little more loose," Church adds. "I decided Carolina was a little bit melancholy for me. I mean, it had its moments. I thought the record was more introspective. I wanted Chief to be more fun."
Fast and loose is also a pretty good description of Church's antics both on and off the stage. His first real publicity came when Church was kicked off Rascal Flatts' "Me & My Gang" tour for playing too long. Taylor Swift took his place.
More recently, Church came under fire for some comments he made about certain television singing competitions such as American Idol and The Voice, the show where Shelton appears as a judge.
"I know that I've never been great, like, a great filter guy," Church says with a laugh. "Going back to Rascal Flatts, you know somebody looking at your career might say, 'That's the stupidest thing. It's the biggest tour in country music and you're going to get fired from it.'
"It's almost like 'Shut up and get in line,' and I've never been good at that," he continues. "If I believe something I'm going to say it, sometimes to my own detriment. I'm passionate about music, and that gets me in trouble sometimes."
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As to his motivation for the comments, Church says he just wanted the guys out there trying to break into the music business to know that they shouldn't expect shortcuts to a successful career. The best careers, he thinks, are built in the bars and the clubs, and from the experiences on the road.
Church believes honing your skills over time in those scenes sharpens the instincts and lets you know what the fans really want. He also wants to let those guys who are playing the clubs know that they can make it big without the help of reality-television shows.
"It made me hungrier," Church says. "I promise you I'm hungrier because I had to sit there and watch award shows and I had to sit there and watch all of these people on television that were getting spots that I thought we deserved and were better than them. I thought that we put in the work and they were getting the opportunities, so when you have those things happen, it puts a chip on your shoulder the size of Mount Everest."
"I carry that chip into the studio," he adds. "I carry that chip onstage and carry that chip into a songwriting session. It took those things to make me a better artist. I want a kid to know right now who's playing in a bar in the middle of nowhere and who has played 14 days in a row and who is starving to death and he's plugging in his amp, that he doesn't have to go on American Idol to make it."